NIGEL HUMPHREYS POET

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PUNCTUATING POETRY - WHY BOTHER

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on January 8, 2012 at 10:50 AM Comments comments (4)

PUNCTUATING POETRY – WHY BOTHER

Kick it into touch since punctuation does little else but litter a poem with its pig tails and spots. For me visual impact has the edge on words every time. For instance as much as I enjoy the delicious frisson of ghost stories they never seem to excite on the printed page despite the best efforts of M R James, and more recently, Susan Hill. Go and see her The Woman in Black which I believe is still running in the West End if you have the chance: the eventual appearance of the ghost ‘stops the heart’ in a way the book can never hope to. I’ve seen the film version too which unsurprisingly works even better than the stage production thanks to clever camera work. This is not to say that we writers should cede to other media in this genre. Without the book there would have been no stage play or film. But visual presentation is important I think and this is where we poets have more freedom than prose writers. The novel and short story are generally constrained by the importance of reportage. Where novelists like Anthony Burgess, Martin Amis, Peter Carey and even Laurence Sterne in the eighteenth century tinker with convention, for me these prose styles are distractive and therefore distructive. The narrative is too important and one simply wants the writer to get on with it.

Poetry, once it is brave enough to jettison convention – the clunking rhyme, graunching alliteration, the poseur upper case letter at the start of each line and (but to a much lesser extent) the regimentation of stanzas - can begin to breathe in the wide open spaces it creates for itself. It’s easier on the eye - length of line dictated by its own content rather than that of its neighbours. One-word lines can work well depending on the context, and can comfortably (or to good effect) infill between long lines each of varying length.

Of course the baby which must be retained when the bath water disappears down the plug hole is rhythm but that is far from difficult to achieve. Because rhythm is a common human experience from the nursery onwards (to the tides to the football chant to the popular song and so on) deciding whether the rhythm of a line or lines works is often a question of reading the poem out loud. One very quickly gets a feel for what purrs and what caterwauls especially the more one reads widely.

But to return to the question of visual impact I much prefer the free flowing form generous with its wide open spaces than the straight-jacketed sestina or terza rima for instance. And to that end I have made a conscious decision in stitching together my latest book - Of Moment to remove as much punctuation as possible. For instance, there are well over 50 poems in the collection and not one full stop or question mark within them. To indicate a sentence I merely retain the initial capital letter. Why does the language need two forms of punctuation to signpost one sentence And was it necessary to conclude the previous sentence with a question mark – or this one The sense makes it instantly clear that a question is being asked with abutting it with an insect cypher It’s high risk I know and I accept that it may be distractive for the reader through the first pages until accustomed to it, but to my eye the poems look better on the page

However this is prose so back to the rudiments. In the river of blank verse, or verses with subtle rhyming devices, one can use an empty line to good effect to indicate a change of register, subject or emphasis. In other words the poem is allowed to take over and dictate its own form. Time for an example. My poem AT THE TATE begins

A nubile somebody else came onto the patio

and ate a banana with a knife and fork

made a meal of it

In another room

the banana skin grew fur at break-neck speed

and a grand piano denoted in the ceiling

That done

I sat at a table

on the top floor

with my latte

and read someone’s newspaper

(Nobody had cleared up after Andy Warhol

nor towed away Lichtenstein’s cut-out car)

Sadly the blog format won't allow me to present the poem as in the original where some of the lines are staggered across the page but I hope you will agree that the line breaks, phrase positioning and blank lines are enough to ensure that the sense is abutted by the natural pauses in cadence. Or does this work better -

A nubile somebody else came onto the patio

and ate a banana with a knife and fork;

made a meal of it. In another room

the banana skin grew fur at break-neck speed

and a grand piano denoted in the ceiling.

That done I sat at a table on the top floor

with my latte and read someone’s newspaper.

(Nobody had cleared up after Andy Warhol

nor towed away Lichtenstein’s cut-out car.)

Sadly I can't make the blog show exactly how the poem appears on the page.Another plus is that the form of the first example makes it more obvious that the narrative is intended to be read as a poem. There is ample room for the reader to stretch out and move around in it, to feel comfortable in the reading. Below is a rather extreme example of using space to convey the marrow of a poem. I wrote it some years ago.

HEART TO HEART

. . . and talking of emotion

the bottom line

Again the blog format defeats my intention to present the poem as it should be seen but if you can imagine a huge 25 line gap between its two lines you may understand what it's trying to achieve. The intention is that the poem visually conveys its meaning – an irony that a heart to heart contact between two individuals may be defeated by, or defined by, a total absence of emotion. This is what it has come to. There’s nothing there. Despite the expectation of the first line there is no talking of emotion because perhaps the relationship is dead. The last line clearly has both a literal and a contextual meaning. Does it work. You be the judge.

Apostrophes are another bone of contention and many people are uncertain where to use them. My attitude is to use them only where necessary. The German language simply adds the letter ‘s’ to a noun to indicate possession. No vertical take-off comma for them. If I write – the mans car was red – the sense is clear. After all we cannot express the apostrophe vocally so why do we need to express it visually. Neither can we express the plural version vocally where the apostrophe trails the ‘s’. The context does it for us. But if it’s absolutely necessary to make the distinction then it earns its place in the line. Apostrophes also unnecessarily indicate that letters are missing as in - it’s, that’s or ‘flu’. One might argue that if there is no apostrophe can’t may be confused with cant. Well North Americans say cant anyway when they mean cannot. I would suggest the context will always make the sense clear without that annoying little oick hanging around, dishevelling words. When in doubt leave it out. The same largely applies to colons and semi-colons. Let the line breaks or a judicious use of the comma do the work. Colons usually warn of a consequence to what is expressed or some sort of a list is approaching but the list will come anyway and when it does the reader will know it for what it is. The semi-colon seems to have no clear idea of its own identity or function in the world. It’s something of a gooseberry or wallflower in a sentence as though it would rather not be there, in which case, send it home, I say.

I suspect knowing where to involve punctuation deters many from writing. People say to me, I can’t write poetry perhaps thinking they have to craft sonnets and villanelles. I tell them that anyone who can string words together on a page can write a poem and the more they write the bolder they get in calling on the subs to replace ineffective words. I try and explain that writing poetry is not so much how you write but what you write. Take an old letter you may have kept a copy of for instance in which you have expressed your feelings to someone (or maybe a diary entry). Chop it up into lines so that each takes a breath where the spoken word pauses. Spread it on the page, let the lines find their own position so that you are comfortable with them. Let them swim in all that white space. That’s a start. From that point on you can begin to choose your words carefully and imaginatively, subtracting and adding ideas. It’s as though the brain has to be cranked up first by the very act of creative writing. Once the engine is running synapses form and ideas usually flow. A sudden wonderfully descriptive phrase will leap into your mind from who knows where. But thats quite another blog! Oh dear, I just used an exclamation mark but at least I omitted the redundant apostrophe. Never mind. The exclamation mark can be the only viable devise at times rather like swearing – and it has visual impact.

CLARE COTTAGE

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on October 12, 2011 at 7:30 AM Comments comments (1)

CLARE COTTAGE (See photo album)

The reason I haven’t blogged for a number of weeks is simply that throughout this summer my writing has been focused solely on the new book. Its poetry is now in its 3rd incarnation and cooking nicely in my ‘oven’ file. The hope is that my present self-enforced estrangement will allow me to return to it with a critic’s eye so that I can have it on my publisher’s desk by the end of the year. Jonathan Wood is a gentleman publisher and I’m well suited to beavering away in his scriptorium. For him the need for success and recognition in a commercial sense takes a laudable sub-position to the creative process, the dasein of the opus and its struggle towards the perfection it will never reach since therein lies the tension which spawns the art. A conceptual integrity and the imaginative soar of the written word is what matters most to us both.

During this inter-regnum amongst other travels I recently visited Clare Cottage in Helpston, the birthplace of John Clare – the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’. Thanks to a substantial gift from the Lottery Fund a visitor centre was recently opened in 2009 and a life size statue of the poet commissioned to stand in the garden. One sees immediately that, like Keats, he was surprisingly small in stature – just 5 ft. I was told that his fen rock features – overshadowing brow, large blade of a nose and jemmy of a chin – have been muted by the sculptor so as not to frighten children. Well . . . he still looks grisly to me. His birthplace and where he lived for a considerable time as a married man and father has been furnished to reflect how it might have looked in his day – the Spartan furnishings of a poor family subsisting on poverty pay. The virtual authenticity of the tour is convincing and his poetry subbed as a guide from room to room.

Clare was not one of the greats, it has to be said. His main topic was the countryside in which he grew up, felicitously writing in the wake of the Lyrical Ballads. He met Coleridge on one of his rare London visits but there is no record of the encounter. He also met Lamb and Hazlitt and this countervail leads me to consider why John Clare is significant. Recognised poets tend to be well-educated. When Clare was writing in the early 19th century a classical education was a necessary weapon in the typical armoury of an aspiring writer. Wordsworth, Byron, Southey, Shelley, Keats and Coleridge all had comparatively privileged upbringings which allowed them the scope and time to develop their talent, and so it continued with most other establishment literati well into the 20th century. The vast majority of our nation’s Poet Laureates have been Oxbridge graduates and today most of our notable poets are academics with enough free time to nourish their art. Clare had no such opportunities. He was self-taught to the extent that his illiterate parents quickly realised that he was different from other children, that he had the gift of words. The kitchen table doubled as his desk between meals and many of his early poems would be secreted in cracks in the fabric of the cottage. He was a pot-boy in the Blue Bell, a gardener, a lime burner, lived for a time with gypsies and was eventually forced onto parish relief. His under-nourished upbringing may account to some extent for his stunted stature. Earning a living through manual labour would have taken most of his energy and yet he always wrote poetry. Eventually, in order to stave off his parent’s threatened eviction, his poems were sent to a publisher by way of the local bookseller. Taylor and Hessey (Keats’ publishers) were impressed. In 1820 they published his first collection: Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. It was well received and a second collection followed quickly. He was paraded in London and his talent recognised.

I think we can say at this point that Clare had not only broken through but had broken a mould. Despite his unprivileged, working class background he produced poetry which was considered gilt-edged by the literary establishment of the day. This was some achievement by any standards against a background which constantly worked against his success. In this sense he is an inspirational figure to all who believe in and seek recognition for their poetry but whose near lifestyle, against a non-academic backcloth, is niggard of time and opportunity.

Sadly, it seems that Clare may have stretched himself beyond the horizon of his comfort zone during his four promotional London visits. One can imagine it all to clearly: the brusque Northamptonshire brogue breaking against the lacy vowels of the early 19th century literati, his workaday clothes in a continual war of attrition with the finery of the gentleman’s tailor, his granite manners milling the fine flour of society doyennes. He sought courage in drink but within a dozen years his rustic poetry fell out of favour. He became depressed - ‘the self-consumer of my woes’ - and suffered what today we would call an identity crisis - I am! and live with shadows tost.’ His depression eased him into madness to the extent that he was persuaded by his publisher to commit himself to an asylum. Through the patronage of the Marquis of Exeter and others he spent the last 27 years of his life in a Northampton General Lunatic Asylum but with the freedom to come and go within the town at will. His most famous poem I Am (appended below) written in the Asylum is a cri de coeur.

I conclude this little piece on John Clare with a wonderful irony. He is buried in Helpston graveyard, a small village just north-west of Peterborough, and on his tomb stone are written the words A POET IS BORN NOT MADE; only . . . the elements which he so often wrote about have erased the final ‘E’.

I Am

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky

RUSSIAN POETRY

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on May 31, 2011 at 12:04 PM Comments comments (0)

I have been asked to take part in an Anglo-Russian poetry event on the 15th June at The Poetry Place in London. I only know one Russian poet – Valentine Hripko, who writes mainly romantic poetry and once impressed me with a love poem dedicated to a certain (or uncertain) lady friend which involved vampires. I have never thought to ask him how well the poem was received or indeed whether the lady in question is still speaking to him. The only other Russian poet which comes readily to mind is Pushkin whom I recall famously lost 1-0 in a duel. Tolstoy also wrote poetry. However, coincidentally or not, (depending on your take on determinism) in a charity shop last year I picked up a short anthology of Nineteenth Century Russian poetry in translation. As I flick through it now I am immediately in the unfamiliar company of names like Baratynsky, Yazykov, Lermontov, Tyutchev, Nekrasov and Fet. No doubt these poets are as familiar to my young friend Valentine as Wordsworth, Hopkins and Tennyson are to me.

 

Now it strikes me that while Russia has produced many fine musicians and composers, twentieth century painters and novelists her poets with international reputations seem to be thin on the perma frost. The forward to the anthology says that most belonged to a class of impoverished gentry, joined the Hussars or ‘some such thing’, were inspired by Byron and failed to live off their verse. (Nothing new there then as far as the last aspect.) They were Romantics dazzled by their metaphysical ideals and the impossibility of ever resolving them. That may be so. But when it comes to reading their work in my native language I am immediately plunged into the cold war of translations. Am I reading the poetry of Pushkin or of the translator - in this case Alan Myers. This verse taken from a short poem by Tolstoy tells me two things; first, why he is known to us as a great novelist and second, that the translation has done him absolutely no favours whatsoever.

 

Should you love – be it a furnace

Should you threaten, be it in earnest

Should you swear, then make it hot

Should you strike, give it all you’ve got!

 

I wonder what Tolstoy ever did to upset Mr. Myers? I’m not sure “give it all you’ve got’ is a Nineteenth Century idiom though to be fair much of the vacuousness of these translations maybe deliberately representative, mirroring the effete conventions of our own Hoods, Swinburns and Alfred Austins (remember them!). The serious point to be made here though is that no matter how loyal the translation is, it is always another poem. It might be a better poem than the original but unless the reader or listener is a polyglot he won’t be in a position to judge. Translations can only ever be insights through degenerative cataracts, a peep into the mind of the poet courtesy of a third party we either trust or doubt.

 

The eigheenth century poet Trediakovsky was one of the first innovators of Russian poetry. Before his time Russian poets basically produced rhyming lines with an equal number of syllables. This is empathic with the fourteenth century Welsh cwydd used to great effect by Dafydd ap Gwilym where rhyming couplets consisted exclusively of 7 syllables each. There was little emphasis on metre. Trediakovsky retained the syllable count but introduced metre based on the trochee (a foot consisting of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one – the other way round from the iamb. The iamb of course features strongly in modern British poetry which largely follows the cadences of speech rhythms.) He called this new form of poetry syllablo-tonic versification which worked well with lines of between 11 and 13 syllables.

 

Subject matter will always translate of course but rarely style. Japanese Haikus are a good example of this. Written in pictographs they work well – we are told. But in English we try to ape the form by counting lines and syllables. A good discipline for those of us who tend to be expansive, but otherwise futile. I have never been a fan of the Haiku, the mayfly of all poetic styles. The cwydd is similarly almost impossible to replicate in English. The constituent Welsh language bunches up conveniently in perfect rhyming couplets of seven syllables whereas the English vocabulary just can’t cope with this straight jacket. The translator has to compromise and often ends up abandoning form permitting himself the largesse of expressing the spirit of the verse as he or she feels it. It becomes a loose paraphrase. The ideas and images are retained in essence but the poetry is sacrificed. It’s a bit like reciting rather than singing Tosca or Lohengrin.

 

Contemporary Russian poets include Mikhail Kukin, Konstanin Gadaev and Igor Federov. They belong to the Konkov School of poets ‘possessing a peculiar vision, resulting in every detail of the world forming an argument in favour of the meaningfulness of the whole.’ (Nezavisimaya Gazette). They have a special interest in the contemporary ordinary man in his environs. Those with international recognition during the last century include Alexander Blok, Sergei Yesenin, Anna Achmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Joseph Brodsky who is actually an American citizen and wrote the forward to my charity shop anthology.

 

To an English Speaker Russian poetry on the page in the original Cyrillic has all the appearance of broken glass. To hear it, the sharp edges of its bass consonants are somehow kept afloat by an underlying susurrus, ‘r’s tend to endure and the vowels can be brittle. For the non-Russian speaker perfect rhymes are its fishplates and there seems to be a tendency to disclaim allegro. But then English doesn’t roll much better. Neither language has the liquidity of French, Spanish, Italian or Welsh even. In common with German, Dutch and Scandinavian languages Russian and English share a halting gait which works very well in polemics and satire but perhaps not in love poetry. They are languages more suited to ideas than emotion, with the notable exception of Valentine’s vampire love poem of course.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on April 30, 2011 at 3:17 PM Comments comments (1)

 

As Stephen Fry once remarked: the definition of ‘countryside’ is the throttling of Piers Morgan. Well I live in the countryside but it’s the gauntlet London hurls down which wires my sensibilities. From time to time I need to be where it’s at. This month I will be in London Town again, a place I love in measured doses, reading my latest botch of something loosely called poetry in The Poetry Place, Covent Garden. The poster reads: ‘An Evening with the Poet Nigel Humphreys’ which is totally flattering and, I fear, totally undeserved. Whenever I come down I always avail myself of the opportunity to visit its galleries (Dutch landscapes at the Queen’s this time), see the latest plays with the finest actors and go to the best concerts (the Finzi String Quartet at the Wigmore I’ve managed to book on this occasion); to tame its fanged roar as though proving something to myself - that I am not disenfranchised of pantheons perhaps, or unfazed by grandeur. Aldgate, Blackfriars, Charing Cross, Bayswater, Swiss Cottage, Holborn are always strangely familiar to me as though I have lived among them before in another life. I feel both au fait and estranged like returning home after a long holiday. I get a buzz from manhandling the most impressive metropolis on the planet. It’s a fix which aggrandizes. It also humbled on one occasion.

 

 

Minor incipient mishaps perhaps but injurious such as, when having detrained at Birmingham International that morning on my up-journey down, the platform announcer surreally informed all who could decipher his static that there would be no more trains travelling to London that day. I had to catch a train back to the New Street and walk across Brum city centre to Snowhill station in order to catch a train to Marylebone. Annoyingly this put me on an inconvenient Tube line. Added to which I then found that my reserved Virgin quiet carriage didn’t exist because the fat controller had cobbled together another shorter train consequent to a breakdown at Lime Street. Yet again I found myself in the travelling offices of business types forced to listen to their bureau politics, mislaid orders and the embarrassed consequences of heavy drinking the night before. Why is there an assumption that we all need to listen to their declamatory mobile conversations? Are we being groomed as definers of their self-importance?

 

An altercation on arrival with an urbane unapologetic Cypriot hotel manager insisting I had not booked didn’t endear me to the suitcase and coffin dimensions of my single room. So Ok, I admit I was standing in the foyer of the wrong hotel but how did I know that I’d booked in its sister pension. What annoyed me more than anything was that his limited language skills prevented him from expressing any regret over the misunderstanding. (Is the-customers-always-right exclusively a British thing?)

 

Equally tiresome was that night’s appalling play at the National Theatre about waves of multi-national immigrants settling in Bethnal Green over recent centuries. Utterly without plot and therefore denouement. Just cloned acts the only difference between them being that where they were Huguenots in Act One they were Irish and Jews in subsequent acts. Same script, different lingua franca. I left at the interval. It was on the same visit that I came up against the unexpected and exorbitant entrance fee to Kew Gardens which, in my naivety, I expected to be as free as the parks. I refused to hand over my £16 and spent the afternoon in a pub watching two low-grade cricketing nations slog it out in the 20-20 World Cup. So this must have been four years ago. And that’s another thing which nettles – until this moment I had thought it was only two.

 

In short, on this one occasion and on this one occasion only London had diminished, grown too familiar perhaps. No adrenaline rush, only the drip drip of ennui. And from the moment I arrived I wished the trip over. I longed to be back in the hills, on the dark side of the Cambrian Mountains in undemanding space. Was this prescient ? Read on. I was not home-sick, just strangely sick of London and its unslakable sirens, wheeled suitcases (my own included) rattling over collapsed pavements and the endless tribes of reservation-free schoolchildren raiding the galleries on their pinto ponies. Where before I had risen to the cosmopolitan challenge of the great city, multifarious sounds insulted my eardrums almost surgically, Mediterranean gesticulations struggled with the demotic in wine bars, the tourists’ bungling insouciance galled.  That was four years ago apparently and on the many trips since you’ll hear me announcing, in my own version of platform speak, that I have reclaimed old Lud, or Lud has killed the fatted calf.

 

What is unaccountable is that it would appear all reverses had been decanted into that one trip. Coincidence or what? Was I being set up by some esoteric energy science has yet to discover? You be the judge.

 

Two days later found me in the breathy Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. The forecast for the south Midlands was poor, rain all day. I expected to spend most if it in the car with my crosswords, CDs and C.P. Snow while my wife got on with the business of showing her fancy rabbits in their best bib and tucker at Hanley Swann, a pert little vintage with its chocolate box village green and duck pond under the benign magisterial watch of those famous Elgar-haunted hills. Luckily, when we arrived after an uneventful two and half hour car journey, the sky slowly cleared and I was able to walk our pet Lab Lizzie along one of our usual routes over the slopes skirting the British Iron Age hillfort and ignoring for that day the gentle switchbacks to the north. We past the reservoir on our left and followed the earthwork ditches as far as we could safely walk. In the distance yet again the familiar sight of a tall imposing monument which stood aloof of the trees tantalised. For nearly forty years I had wondered how I might reach it. There didn’t seemed to be a way of getting there other than by car and on every occasion at the same point I would turn back and forget it despite my stolid resolve to consult a map once I had returned to the car. This day was something else.

 

For the first time in all those years at that precise point of our customary turn-back I noticed a low brick-built cairn a few paces further on down where the escarpment dropped away. Why I had never seen it before I can’t explain? It wasn’t new; in fact, by its appearance it had weathered over many years. It must have always been there. It was as though I had always been blind to its existence. Until now. On the cairn were directional arrows. One pointed to a quarry and another to the British Camp from where we’d come. A third was aimed at a narrow obscure track disappearing into the bracken and low slung trees leading off to the south-west. On it were written the words: MIDSUMMER HILL OBELISK. So that’s what it was. In short I followed the impish windy path, reached the obelisk, decrypted its many eroded inscriptions as best I could which exclusively concerned Chancellor Somer and his family (he had been instrumental in the Glorious Revolution it seemed) and returned, an epiphanic glow warming me all the way back. Something significant had happened. I was sure of that. Two hours had passed as one. I was no longer of the same mind. Had the disillusionment of my London trip set me up for this ? Why had I not seen the cairn and its sign before? I don’t say our walk was revelatory but there was some sort of alchemy in the mix as though purpose afoot in those pagan hills. I was mentally as far from London as it was possible to be. At the opposing end of the topographic compass but in my comfort zone, my natural habitat. Is that what the stark comparison was telling me by means of something I fail to grasp entirely but consider to be eerily portentous? Town and country, challenge and comfort, adventure and solace, impatience and solicitude, palace and cottage define each other. My card had been marked. I’d been well signposted. Oh yes, and if anyone reading this happens to be in Betterton Street on Wed 18th May at about 7 o’clock please call into the Poetry Place café. Just follow the signs if you are permitted to see them!

THE POETRY LOTTERY

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on March 22, 2011 at 1:46 PM Comments comments (2)

 

The final date for entries to a prestigious National Poetry Competition is poaching on my time. It’s nagging me because I can’t decide whether or no to have a go. I haven’t entered a poetry competition for some considerable time, though I have had some modest success in the past. I suspect I should start testing my luck again but is there enough point ? Do I have anything which may catch the judges’ eyes ? How can I judge, not being a judge? Is it worth a punt? £6 a poem. Hmmm. One could spend quite a little fortune in a year entering all possible competitions but do any of them truly repay the effort of entering: polishing your little darling to a sparkling fleur de coin, printing it out remembering to remove your identity, filling in the entry form, writing a small cheque, hunting high and low for that unfranked stamp you had carefully steamed of a birthday card to your wife, and walking it to the postbox to save ingots of petrol ?

 

The prize money is handsome in this case but not a little outdone by the prestige of winning a big competition. And let’s face it no matter how good one’s poem is, it’s the judges’ opinions which count; opinions which are inevitably loaded with personal predilections vis-à-vis style and content. Everyone has their own ideas of what constitutes a good poem. If one is clever enough, or can be bothered, there is a case for sending the right horse to the right course. I know a dog breeder who went out of his way at a Championship Show to discover what colour the judge preferred so that he could buy a suit in that shade to wear as he paraded his little pooch in the ring. I kid you not. He decked himself in an outrageous green and won. I had this from the dog’s mouth. Of course to apply this strategy to poetry competitions one would have to acquaint oneself with the judges’ work and send something in the same shade and cut.

 

And talking of parading animals at shows there are similarities with poetry competitions. When we are all glued to our monitors or TVs next year as they run the Olympic 100 yards in Stratford, London no one in a world wide audience of millions will be in any doubt of the winner. There can be no argument about who stretches his neck beyond the tape first. (Strange that no one gives a flying start about how much the prize money is – is there prize money ?) The first sprinter to pass the winning line wins. End of. On the other hand, Chris my wife breeds fancy rabbits and takes them to shows to compete against other breeders’ rabbits. The judges are always breeders themselves. Ahem. Over a year they judge each other’s rabbits. Ahem, ahem. On any one show day the judge will decide which is the best rabbit in its class, and ultimately which is the best rabbit in the show. There are standards to which breeds should confirm but these are open to rather loose interpretation. So it is always a matter of the judge’s personal opinion at any one time. No one can see the cogs and escapement of their minds and they don’t have to justify their decisions. If a judge fails to acknowledge a former winner’s quality by placing it low, he or she can always say that it wasn’t showing itself to its best advantage that day. Ahem. Others may not agree and quietly carp behind the judge’s back but they have to accept the format no matter how inadequate.

 

You can see where I’m going with this. There is little transparency or accountability, and to a certain extent this applies to poetry competitions. There is nothing directly comparable to breed standards in the poetry world – not these days anyway - but bad or mediocre poetry usually betrays itself by being boring, unimaginative, unoriginal and derivative. That still leaves many, many, many really good poems to grade in each competition; but what will split them, what quality will push one to the top of the heap? I’m afraid the answer is often luck. As in the fancy world it will be the judges’ opinion and that could change from day to day. If you’re lucky yours may just dovetail with the consensus of current thinking. I was once placed in a competition in which the judge was unwise enough to ring to tell me. Big mistake because he went on to say that on any other day any one of the top five could have won it. His second mistake was to say that he’d put a poem above mine because it dealt with the loss of the poet’s son to which he admitted being not a little sympathetic. It wasn’t this judge’s finest hour but it was revealing.

 

Poetry judges may be called up on to write a brief justification of course but rarely does that help to clarify why one particular poem beats all others. The fact of the matter is that the winner will always be unjustifiable. Put another way poetry competitions are lotteries and that’s how they should be approached. Send your darlings in by all means but then forget them. Put them right out of your mind. I never ask to be sent the result. If I’m placed I’ll know it, if not do I care who is? All too often one never hears of them again. In the case of the competition I’m entertaining entering now I happened to look at the winners for the last ten years. I recognized two names only and I’m pretty well up on poets who have achieved some sort of recognition in recent years.

 

Yet, it is worth winning a poem lottery. There is little outlay and, as long as the competition has prestige, it’s a good shop window for the winner. Many of today’s recognised poets began by winning a big poetry competition. Publishers are immediately interested in you. They want to know if you have enough in your nascent canon for a collection. That august arts magazine which for years turned down everything you sent it, suddenly wants to print your work. On the other hand, there’s little virtue in wasting your time entering the Scunthrope Civic Trust Annual Open Poetry Competition to be judged by his worship the Mayor, Brigadier D’Arcy-Featherstone (I’ve made this one up but you get the point).

 

So will I bother to enter or have I just talked myself out of it? And this is a guy who has never bought a lottery ticket and on that basis, probably having otherwise speculated £1 a week since it began, I’m close on £1,000 better off. On the other hand, each £1 would have bought be the chance to win big. How many weeks did I not win a million pounds ?

 

So OK, I’ll have a couple of punts. Why not? If I don’t, there’s no way I’ll win and if I win . . . I’ll let you know, or someone will.

The Mystic Poet. Where does he go to?

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on January 21, 2011 at 9:33 AM Comments comments (4)

 

The Mystic Poet. What does he hope for? And what does he hope for us: to go

           “Down the passage which we did not take

            Towards the door we never opened

            Into the rose-garden” ?

 

       And once in the rose-garden what would we find there - the laughter of children, as TS Eliot would have it?

 

        There is no doubt that though Eliot was Roman Catholic he had a certain empathy with Buddhism. The Four Quartets are interwoven with the influence of its teachings. But where does this get us as poets and readers of mystic poetry? Is the mystic poet bound to fail in his attempt to describe the ineffable? In Burnt Norton Eliot is obsessed with the concept of Time. The mystic’s moments of enlightenment, if they have any reality at all, take place outside the parameters of Time. This is what the mystic would claim. But he’s immediately in trouble when he tries to express it. Plain language will not do. His best chance is metaphor – the children’s laughter in the rose-garden – a trinity of joy, purity and beauty.

           The mystic poet attempts to rationalise those out-of-the-world experiences which give rise to what the Sufi prefers to call: glimpses of eternity, a union with the undiscribable while still on earth. And for once science is on his side. Supposing the rose-garden is to be entered through the ‘door we never opened’’; in fact one of the eleven dimensions scientists are now telling us need to exist in order to rationalise the exotic world of particle physics; one of the infinite number of parallel universes mathematicians proselytise to unbelievers.

            Supposing the mystic is somehow able to slip in and out of these universes just as the electron appears to do. To be in two places at the same time. If electrons belonging to the atoms of the mystic’s flesh can do it, then why not the mystic ? But how might that work exactly ? What follows is one poet’s conception of Time which may or may not help to explain how the mystic poet might actually be on to something.

            There is a notion that our experience of what we perceive to be reality comprises of a succession of timeless moments. This stands or falls on the premise that Time is nothing more than a necessary function of the human brain, a way of measuring change. It would not therefore be a Platonic Absolute existing in a self-sufficient state. What we can safely say about Time is that it is a necessary constituent of our experience of the natural world. All mass develops and ages, even if not always apparent - mountains for instance. The idea of Time depends on the awareness of procession. The practical needs of our existence demand it. The instant that one state becomes another Time is manifest.

              Within the parameters of human experience Time would seem to be ever-progressing so that there can be no knowledge of anything which does not change. That which we claim in everyday speech to be the present can in fact only be the past recalled. There is always a time delay between the recording of sense data and its receipt and acknowledgement by the brain. The reverberations of the first stroke of a clock at midnight arrive in the mind after the event. It takes time for neurons to deliver the impulse of message. When the brain is aware of midnight, the bell hammer is already coming to rest ready to strike again.

               There is also a similar visual delay. When we see the bell struck we are looking at the past, exactly as we look at a sun which we know to be already eight minutes older than as we see it. No one disputes this. Because the cogs of the brain take time to turn we can never experience the instant. For practical purposes this is rarely, if ever, a problem of course.

               However, if Time is ever-progressing there would appear to be no place for the present, all existence being a state of flux. From this one might deduce that everything that is, whether matter or thought, develops and at no point stands still long enough to come into existence. To postulate that matter exists in a changing or evolving state is a contraction in terms. To ‘be’ implies immobility, a steady state or stasis where nothing is happening. To say that something ‘is’ is not to say that it ‘is becoming’. The atom cannot exist in a state of becoming. It either is or it isn’t. It cannot ‘become’ in and out of being. To argue that everything we know exists in a state of becoming is therefore to say that nothing exists at all.

              Matter not only exists but, from the point of its self-creation some 14 billion years ago, it changes from moment to moment, and thereby hangs the nub of the argument. Change implies a difference between one state and another but these states of non-change or is-ness must exist for matter to come into being. Within them there can be no progression. It follows then that, if there is no change of state, these states must be outside of Time, the concept of Time being completely reliant on the acknowledgement of change or variation.

               Furthermore, it can be said that these changeless, timeless states are states of presence which we loosely call ‘now’. And each now moment must create and destroy itself before another can exist subtly at variance to its predecessor. The fact that each has a successor and predecessor implies time passing. Therefore, if change is the acknowledged difference between ‘now’ moment and another ‘now’ moment then change implies a progression of states of creation

at such speed that the slowness of the human brain can only record procession. The difference from one state from another creates the concept of time passing.

              Analogous to this is the movie film: a rapid succession of coherently different stills which deceives the brain so that it registers motion. The still is timeless because within the still there is no change, nothing happens: “the still point of the turning world”(Burnt Norton). Each succeeding still captures a similar scene but slightly changed from its predecessor. When the reel of film is run, the brain cannot register each still individually because the information comes too fast. It notes only the aggregate of the many changes. The stills do not change themselves, they arrive in a changed state. This is to say that existence cannot be and become in the same moment. It cannot ‘be’ becoming. It cannot ‘become’ being.

 

              This further leads to the apparently absurd conclusion that the past and future never have and never will exist: the past being now moments recalled, and the future an expectation of now moments based on a knowledge of those already experienced. But within this deduction there lies a paradox, for though these moments of constant state presence must be outside of Time, they also have a beginning and an end experienced in Time; or to put it another way - within the celluloid adhesions between each still . Eliot describes it thus in the Four Quartets:

"To be conscious is not to be in Time

But only in Time can the moment in the rose garden

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future."

             We cannot imagine what coheres these now moments (that is, the celluloid as it were) but because it appears to exist ulterior to earth time, it is where the mystic presumes himself to be in moments of enlightenment  The Buddhist monk’s Nirvana perhaps. Somehow his consciousness (for he is aware and remembers) locks on to this changeless state, this

“ . . . abstraction

Remaining a perpetual possibility

Only in a world of speculation”.

              Among the first words of the Four Quartets Eliot concludes,

"But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on the bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know."

             and despite all that follows in East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding he fails to get beyond this statement of ignorance, an ignorance utterly accepted by our Buddhist monk who has no truck with theogonies or doctrines of martyrdom and redemption.

            As a poet living in the shortening half of his life I can honestly say that I have never experienced moments of enlightenment. I have never been in the rose-garden. But I am prepared to accept that others have; and what is so fascinating about the times we live in is that the science may hold the key to a rational explanation. If a scientist can discover exactly where the electron goes when it makes its legendary leap out of existence, and then back again, he may have the answer ? For perhaps where the electron goes, the mystic follows.

Poetry Workshops: Do they work ? Who needs them ?

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on January 3, 2011 at 7:54 AM Comments comments (1)

Poetry Workshops: Do they work ? Who needs them ? Well . . . there are Workshops and there are Workshops, and then there are online Workshops which I will tread on later. In my local Workshop in Aberystwyth University Arts Centre up to ten of us meet every month on a Saturday afternoon for three hours which pass like one, perhaps not even one. We, that is The Word Distillery Poets, hold our Workshop in the Recording Studio not for any reason related to the room’s purpose but because it’s not used at that time of the week, and because that’s where the Arts Centre has sited us. (At one time they would have us in the University Chapel – another little-used room.) All we require is a table, enough chairs and a little fortitude. Each of us is primus inter pares so we take it in turns to run each afternoon’s session. Simple enough. All that is required of the pro temp chairperson is to list all the poems to be worked that afternoon and shuffle them into some sort of order. This takes up the first five minutes.

 

Some will have brought two poems on which they are currently working, others will manage only one; and occasionally a poet will turn up with nothing at all which is fine because input is what is really needed. For those who have brought poems to the butcher’s bench it is necessary that they have brought enough copies so that each jointer has one. Much better to read and listen at the same time. Ideally the Workshop is at its most effective when there are between six and ten poets present. More than ten can mean that we barely have time to work one poem per poet and that sometimes too hastily to be of full use. Those, whose offerings are dealt with first, benefit to the detriment of those whose poems are rushed towards the end of the session. For this reason we have closed the Workshop to newcomers and there is a waiting list. Generally, however, most Workshop afternoons are successful, satisfying and extremely enjoyable.

 

So what are the mechanics of the Workshop ? Each poet is invited to read his or her poem aloud and then select another poet to read it again. Some read poetry better than others and will therefore do more justice to the work. However, because there is so much generosity within the group, this consideration is usually discounted in favour of everyone having a go. One often hears the spotlit poet ask, ‘Who hasn’t read so far?’ After the second reading it used to be an adamantine rule that from this point onwards the poet was not allowed to take part in the appraisal, discussion, dissection or savaging of his or her poem. The poet simply has to sit there and take it as though not in the room. This is a very good discipline on more than one level. One occasionally notices out of the corner of the eye a poet seething to steam because their darling is being sadly misunderstood, or even mistreated though rarely ravished.

 

Of late, we have relaxed this rule so that the poet can be invited during the critique to explain obscure references or simply direct the baying pack to the right tree. Inevitably, some are quicker to grasp a poem’s nuances than others and it is often the case that the first part of any group critique is monopolised by ‘getting’ the poem, trying to understand what the poem is striving to say to us. That hurdle over, we go on to discuss style, format and craft. A particular line or phrase may be praised here, a clunky rhyme disparaged there or whole stanzas excised. Effusive praise is discouraged. All adjectival exaltations or execrations have to be justified. ‘Nice’ and ‘lovely’ communicate nothing and for that reason are no longer considered to be words. When the poem’s bones have been picked clean, perhaps on a rare occasion slavered over, their owner is invited to reflesh them with explanatory comments, or not. It’s up to the poet.

 

Of course the effectiveness of any Workshop can only be commensurate to the quality of criticism and undertsanding within the group. When an offering has had a rough ride the poet is entitled to ask, has the poem failed the group or the group failed the poem. It’s therefore important to have some confidence in one’s own work and not to be totally reliant on the Workshop’s consensus. That apart, what is always useful is to understand the extent to which one’s poem has failed to communicate. (Reading to a group of people who are not writers can also be worthwhile on this basis.) So often what is as clear as mountain water within the poet’s mind fails to relocate to the page. Vital synapses of narrative or connections of allusion remain filed away within the brain without the poet realising it. And often a poem will communicate in ways the poet hasn’t foreseen or intended. This too is good to know.

 

Poets are typically sensitive people. It goes with the job. This needs to be taken into account within a Workshop. A generosity of spirit is therefore required of each poet. A group will find its own way of working together and when new poets arrive they will either fit into the group ethos or quickly fall away. There is always the danger of new blood straight from an English Lit course treading heavily on people’s sensibilities. Those without people skills or courteous consideration can be disruptive, and the poet, often being such a delicate flower, withers. Rudeness is a no-no. Torquemadas must not be tolerated. One can criticise both constructively and politely without the discreet spikes of the Iron Lady. It is possible. Criticism should not imply hostility. ”I don’t think on the whole this poem succeeds” is infinitely to be preferred to “This poem is crap.”

So, having retrieved one’s darling from the auto de fe, what is one to do next? Some will commit their piece to the deep of an escritoire drawer, some will immediately set about revising it and others will nurse it back to health for a while. If one doesn’t act on the Workshop experience there seems little point in subjecting one’s pooch to the Inquisition. However, there is another facet of the Workshop which I particularly enjoy and that is to spend an afternoon of elevated cultural activity in the company of like-minded people and to liberally partake of that generosity of spirit. A generosity over-indulged to the extent of wormy obesity in the online Workshop.

 

Online Workshops. Oh dear! I’m very fortunate in that I do belong to one, run by Kay Green of Earlyworks Press, which is largely successful within the inevitable limitations of time and distance. But, others in which one may unwisely dip one’s toe, will kill your muse stone dead with mutual self-congratulatory kindnesses. Afraid to be too critical in fear of the quid pro quo of others, onliners err on the side of over-effusive backslapping, even brown-nosing. To read their saccharine comments they are all clearly destined for posthumous greatness and in the centuries to come their names will unctiously slip of the tongue as Shelley and Keats do now. No Torquemadas here then, only Dandinis with glass slippers. Their toadying superlatives will advance the cause of poetry not one iota. Almost all of the exulted poems I’ve come across in these other ‘workshops’ are less than mediocre and they will never improve because they are already persuaded that they’re at the apogee of their poetic orbit (you may find a certain ambiguity in this word). So they keep churning out the same free verse plankton devoid of any originality, crafting or ideas, and without the safety net of a dictionary or thesaurus, as though from a malfunctioning sausage machine.

 

In practice online Workshops are just too convenient for their own good. A poem can be posted within seconds of its first and often, it would seem from comments, one and only draft. Indeed, in the majority of cases the term ‘Workshop’ is a misnomer; there are no ergs involved, either in the poem or in the comments: ‘brilliant, as usual!’, ‘I absolutely love this poem’, or ‘great poem, every word is perfect.’ Excuse me! Kublai Khan is a great poem. Paradise Lost is a great poem. Do not go Gentle into that Good Night is a great poem, but would we claim every word perfect in any of these?

 

The other drawback with online Workshops is that because there can be no eye contact, no spatial presence shared, it’s too easy for one’s tone to be misunderstood. Code like lol or emoticons are poor substitutes for breathing one another’s air and for the unavailability of rapid escape. The onliner always has the sanction of never going onto a site again, never going onto his computer again in the extreme. There is no accountability and therefore no redemption. And too often there is an assumption that the poem posted is the finished article. The shy become arrogant and the arrogant become brave. The IT ethos of one-remove makes it impossible to oil one’s critique with conciliatory tone of voice or relaxed facial muscles. Or indeed, to immediately temper one’s remarks on hearing them knock over the furniture in a room. There’s no way round this so again onliners are seduced into being over-polite about each other’s work for fear of offending.

In Kay Green’s Workshop a poem will be looked at word by word, phrase by phrase, line by line and suggestions usefully made. No one says – ‘great poem!’ because no one posts great poems. They are all works in progress. Praise and criticism are dealt out felicitously and newcomers who slip in though the ever-open door of the Workshop soon realise, without being told, that they either are or are not poets; are or are not empathic to the genre.

 

Poetry Workshops: Do they work ? Who needs them ? Yes, they do and I need them. Many of the poems published in my books first saw light of day in my local Workshop at the Arts Centre. And as a result of their close examination many were subsequently revised to better effect, or at least to my satisfaction. A Workshop is an indispensable tool. I would never be without one in my kit bag. How else can you judge how your darling will be received into society? How else can you be sure that your debutante idea has been well schooled? If a room full of fellow writers don’t ‘get’ it, that’s probably telling you something you would have no other means of knowing from collective opinion. Sadly, there are not many Workshops about. My good friend of long standing and fellow writer, Peter Kay, lives on the Shropshire-Staffordshire border within a large conurbation but has no easy access to a Writer’s Workshop. I’m fortunate that I live in a University town. However, there’s no reason why poets can’t set up their own Workshops and meet in each other’s houses. Poets Sally Richard and Steve Mann do exactly this in Shrewsbury. A small ad in the local paper and library should suffice to quicken fellow poets in one’s area. The start of a new year would be a good time to start one up.

The Shortcomings of Free Verse

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on December 20, 2010 at 5:07 AM Comments comments (2)

Writing poetry the modern way, the free verse way, the no-pain-no-gainless way is not difficult. Writing poetry which merits its reading is. Because English is largely spoken in a natural iambic metre (allowing for regional accents) one could in practice jot down one’s thoughts on any given subject, apply line breaks where speech would naturally pause and voilà, a poem is written. Put another way:

 

one could in practice

jot down one’s thoughts

on any given subject,

apply line breaks

where speech

would naturally pause

and voilà,

a poem is written.

 

That is to say, this naïve and facetious example, which has all the appearance of a poem on the page, simply follows the harmonic cadences of Western speech. It needs a title of course. I’ll call it . . . Cop Out. Now sit back for the obligatory nerdy paragraph:-

 

The Latin word cadentia unhelpfully means ‘a falling off’, more applicable to musical cadences. The typical iambus follows the pattern of a short or weak syllable followed by a stressed or long syllable, though it can be the other way around. Some think that it replicates the heart beat as in der dum, der dum, der dum as if chancing on some profound insight. And here’s another nerdy bit - the iambic trimeter was first used by Greek satirists – iaptein meaning ‘to attack verbally.’ Good. We’ve got that out of the way.

 

So, much of the poetry presented online and also often published in Small Press publications adopts this modus operandi. The poetic conventions of rhyme (whether perfect, internal, half rhyme or assonant), sprung rhythm, alliteration, metaphor, simile and imagery are happily omitted, and why not? They demand imagination, the creative juices, fine judgments and decision making. The labour -intensive, time-consuming use of the thesaurus and dictionary, the tedium of crafting lines and the frustration of ditching one’s darling phrases to make a rhyme are utterly avoided; as are those endless revisions – thank many a god for the back spacer in my case (I daren’t permit myself freehand – no human would ever read it).

What it comes down to is that free verse (mostly unstanza-ed) is just too easy to write, and whereas it might encourage almost anyone to write poetry one is reminded of Lear’s ‘Nothing will come of nothing.’ That said, free verse can work well but there has to be a bloody good original idea within the poem’s plainsong.

 

Generally however, much modern free verse rarely says anything worth saying and, without the element of crafting, it is rudderless. I suspect that, given modern man’s natural propensity to short cut virtually every effort, if crafting was de rigueur many who write poetry now would no longer do so.

And yet the mainstay of almost all modern verse is a given – the rhythm. By aping speech patterns rhythm and basic line breaks can be naturally achieved. And certainly, as a skeleton draft, the plainest of language will help the poet to sketch out the structure of the poem, to work through its consistency and test its basic concept for leakage. As this is done the poem will often shape itself. The length of the first line for instance might dictate the length of all others. The build -up of the narrative or descriptive passages may suggest stanzas or free flow. And if stanzas are used, the line count of each may evolve as creative cogs turns.

But, with the rhythm and structure achieved and a central concept mapped out, is that then it ? Is the free verser’s offering now destined for the Keats-Shelley prize, or is it a suit of clothes fit only for a myopic emperor?

 

So, what else can be avoided because it is too much like hard work? The decision to rhyme or not to rhyme would be an obvious candidate. And if to rhyme, what scheme to use; whether to locate full or half rhymes at the end of lines, or to embed internal or assonant rhymes as mortar to bind the poem. Decisions, decisions. But they can be by-passed; as can the need to root around in a rhyming dictionary and, finding nothing suitable, to rewrite a choice descriptive phrase because nothing rhymes with ‘purple’ or ‘orange’. Also, the necessity to assess a reader’s patience with half or quarter rhymes. Neither would there be a requirement to discipline oneself not to invert the customary word order simply to accommodate a rhyme. Nope. The emperor’s transparent finery requires none of this.

 

Nor does his suit need the epaulettes of metaphor or simile. A few buttons of course but no gilt braid or piping to raise an eyebrow or stroke the imagination. No unstoppering the heart to release the creative spirit; to let loose the impatient genie makes words jump through hoops of fire and can girdle the globe in search of the rare, and risky, bon mot. Do today’s free versers fear such alchemy, or can’t they be bothered with all that tosh ? Too, too much hard work involved (toil, exertion, effort, strain, stress, pressure, struggle, labour, travail, sweat, swink, operoseness, fagging, drudgery, hammering, pains, trouble, limae labor, energy, vigour . . . puff, puff! . . . I have it! Too, too much hammering).

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti free verse. I use it myself often (rhyme and alliteration should be used with circumspection or they work against the serious poem becoming a distraction.) Poems short on craft are short on poet, and definitely short change the reader. I hope I will never be accused of not using the most felicitous word in every instance. Each word in a poem from first to last should, in my opinion, be tested against all alternatives. Many of the poems which I read today suggest that the poet’s thesaurus (if he or she has one) needs dusting. There are too many obvious, first choice plain Janes in them. It’s not so much the application of imagination, structure or concept which is missing but the evidence of effort and revision. I can’t hear much hammering these days. Maybe I’m going deaf.

Spending Christmas in the Cave

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on December 10, 2010 at 9:46 AM Comments comments (1)

Most of us will spend this Christmas Day in a cave staring at wall paintings with on eye on a turning spit or soup cauldron, rising from our reed beds from time to never-ending time to throw another piece of forest on the fire. We will watch our children skin bones and hurl them at the dogs or each other, honing their impatience to grow up. And our elders will chew over their lives on toothless gums and growl and return the fire’s spit. They will crab like babies over the flinty floor on all fours, wrapped in hide. And some of us will venture out of the smut and sulphurous fumes into the valley air. We will stretch our limbs and fill our lungs. And we will avoid each other’s caves lest we intrude, lest we feel ourselves unwelcome strangers at another tribe’s fire, though how we would welcome a stranger into our lair this of all days! Is it ‘natural’ to be so solicitous of each other’s privacy? To wall ourselves up within the family ethic rather than that of the tribe.

 

Hobbs saw each man (or woman) as an archaic individual whose unrestrained passions and greed lead him to continually kill and destroy. Freud called this the instinctive Id but thank a god it no longer dominates once man has learnt to think for himself. At some pre-Neolithic stage men and women thought their way put of the tree and into the pack. Thanks to natural selection those who hunt in numbers survive longer to reproduce those who hunt in numbers. The pack has always imposed rules for its own efficacy, i.e. the necessary safety of its individual parts. One only has to study the demographics of a wolf pack; how the pack has learned to stalk and surround its prey and wear it down with threat. Companionship is inevitable. Nature has seen to that.

 

They say it takes two to tango and it certainly takes two to breed almost everywhere you care to look in the natural world. Even if mankind was single-sexed, and therefore parthenogenic, there would still be a grandparent/parent/child relationship. Like it or not,(and many don’t) relations are unavoidable, especially at Christmas. The ‘natural man’ is a social animal. If man’s natural inclinations are to be in the company of his fellows then the company is naturally created. Wolves didn’t at some point decide to hunt in packs though its practice seems logically expedient. Two sets of fangs striking from two different directions at once are better than one. We don’t need Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to tell us that, and neither did the wolf or hyena. But mankind has issues. He has evolved to make the decisions which nature makes for all other animals. It therefore can be difficult to separate those issues he has decided for himself from those which evolution has decided for him.

 

A community has coherent qualities so that its several parts harmonise. Back in the Christmas cave where the natives are getting restless after too much Irish elk the blood bond attends to this. This is nature’s doing. A family thing. But what about other tribal kin - those in the neighbouring caves we are so reluctant to disturb in their campfire peace? Are they not instruments in an orchestra, striving to play the same symphony? One orchestra, one society, one end. But who decided which symphony to play? Did that decision not also evolve naturally from the need to protect the family within the framework of a tribe even if we don’t go much on the choice of music? And not just any old tribe. The best tribe we can practically belong to, given accident of birth and resourcefulness. Go on ! Turn another’s spit for once!

The poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym and Imaddadin Nesimi

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on November 28, 2010 at 6:14 AM Comments comments (0)

I was very privileged to be invited by the Gruntlers International Arts Group in conjunction with Azerbaijan House to compliment an evening’s tribute to the poet Imaddadin Nesimi by introducing the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym, a 14th century Welsh poet. The event took place in November 2010 at Pushkin House, Bloomsbury Square, which is the centre of Russian cultural activities in London before a large cosmopolitan audience graced by the Ambassador of Azerbaijan. Dafydd ap Gwilym was for a brief time a contemporary of Nesimi though, of course, they would never have met living in different continents and it’s unlikely they would have known about each other.

 

Both were contemporaries of Chaucer of course and wrote in a century which absolutely boomed poetry with the verse of Petrach, Dante and Boccaccio; but it has to be said that Dafydd’s poetry has more in common with Chaucer and Boccaccio than Nesimi. What Dafydd does have in common with Nesimi, however, is that he too was an itinerant, little is known of his life other than what can be gleaned from his verse, he wrote in a strict meter and became his nation’s iconic poet.

 

Nesimi was an early Sufi poet and mystic of the Ottoman Empire. He wrote in Turkish, Arabic and Persian. It is believed that he took his name from the village of Nesim near Baghdad. Dafydd’s immediate genealogy is well known, however, and he seems to have come from a well-to-do family (Dafydd ap Gwylim translating to David son of William). In his poetry Nesimi expressed the belief that God was at the centre of all creation and that it was the purpose of human life to subjugate the concept of self in order to become as one with God. This was considered to be blasphemous and Nesimi was executed by being flayed alive at Aleppo. His tomb there has become a place of pilgrimage.

 

Unlike Nesimi Dafydd was no mystic though he certainly wrote devotional poetry. His religious beliefs seem to be conventionally Christian. He is, however, better known for his bawdy, earthy subject matter. I happen to live very close to his birthplace. You can still visit its ruins in my village of Penrhyncoch, near Aberystwyth - you just have to follow the signs. And he’s traditionally buried under a Yew Tree close to the ruins of Strata Florida Cistercian Abbey some 12 miles south of where I live. Dafydd ap Gwylim is considered to be the finest of all Welsh poets and there is no doubt that his blend of a bardic tradition with a more radical approach lifted Welsh poetry into the mainstream of European literature. He is considered to be one of the finest of all Medieval poets.

 

Like Nesimi very little is known of his life apart from the local references in his verse. He appears to have been a minstrel or troubadour but rarely travelled outside of Wales. His verse, steeped in the oral tradition, would have been memorised and recited to the accompaniment of a lute. Nothing survives which was actually written down by Dafydd. He brought to the poetic formalities of the time a flamboyant, vernacular style and a new levity. But it's mainly because he avoided the usual topics such as courtly love and legend, and wrote about pretty much anything that he is stands out from other poets of that time. For example as a nature poet he treats his species of birds and seasons in an easy and ironic manner. You might expect his poem about an owl, Y Dylluan, for instance written in the Middle Ages to be either romantic, mythic or idyllic. A eulogy on wisdom perhaps. Dafydd’s owl was clearly a pain in the arse, preventing him from sleep.

 

Many of his poems were addressed to the love of his life, Morfydd, who inconveniently for him just happened to be married to a local Aberystwyth merchant. It didn’t seem to put him off much and the dalliance apparently went on for years. The raven-haired Dyddgu was another of his long time loves. He also wrote about the girls of Llanbadarn parish who refused to go to bed with him and there’s even an ode to his penis which got him into a lot of trouble – his penis, that is, not the poem.

 

Although innovative and radical in his subject matter Dafydd wrote in a strict meter which is almost impossible to replicate in English. His poems are called Cywydds and, like Nesimi’s Ghazals, consist of rhyming couplets with each line limited to 7 or 8 syllables only; and within these very short lines there would be other poetic devices grouped under the heading Cynghaneddau, such as alliteration, internal and assonant rhyme, maybe all three in one line. He also used the device of asides – little two or three word phrases commenting on the narrative. He may have inserted these on occasions when he struggled for a rhyme. They’re difficult to deal with in transcription. In any event most translations shy away from any attempt to stick to the strict meter and end up as loose paraphrases.

 

Nesimi’s ghazals consist of between five and twenty-five self-contained couplets in so much as each couplet is a poem in itself. There are no enjambments and each couplet line shares the same meter. The second line of each, called the Sher, usually ends with the repetition of a refrain or rhyme, known as a Radif. The first couplet of each ghazal rhymes and the same rhyme, or refrain, is continued in the second lines of each succeeding couplet as in aa, ba,ca, da, etc.

 

One telling difference which posterity may address is that during the evening we were shown a short film about the life of Nesimi. To my knowledge no such film about Dafydd exists. Come on, you Welsh film makers!

Here, by way of a taster, is one of my transcriptions of perhaps the best known of Dafydd’s light verse. I have tried, as well as the English language will permit, to replicate the original meter and poetic devices.

 

 

Trouble at Inn

I came to my chosen city

with my fare valet with me.

Lavish spending, good tuck,

Being proud since boyhood I took

Lodgings, reputably fine,

Popular, and drank some wine.

A fair lean wench I espied

In the house, a comely maid

And I fell for the slim dear one

The colour of the dawn sun.

I bought a roast (not to boast)

For me and her with wine that cost.

Young men love to rove a treat

So I called the lass to my seat

And we ate a meal of great taste,

Better than any wedding feast.

Bold and gallant, I whispered

Two powerful magical words.

And after the ice had been thawed

By whispers (t’was a close call)

And love being not idle, I made

A date to meet this feisty maid,

This dark-browed damsel when,

The company to sleep had gone.

.

All turned in, how pityful,

Except myself and the girl.

I sought out skilfully

The girl's bed; but oh calamity!

As I fell over I called out,

Very angry, it was poor sport.

Cos I didn’t jump well I hit

My shin loudly, my poor limb,

On the edge, (t’was the ostler’s bungle),

Of an idiot stool, above my ankle.

Being to eager is bad

With no easy jump and the repeated

Treachery of crashing about,

The table gave my head a clout

Where a bowl and resounding

Brass pan had stood there lingering.

The table fell, a stout piece,

The double trestle, the whole place.

The pan behind me clattered,

Heard a long way ahead.

The basin thundered (crass I was)

And the dogs barked after me.

Easier it was to rise awry,

A fool’s jest, than quickly.

I got up (what a palaver)

From the floor, Wales for ever!

And near the high walls there stunk

Three English men in one bunk

Fretting about their haversacks,

Hickin and Jenkin and Jack.

The drunken one among them

Hissed to the two in high dudgeon,

‘There’s a Taff, set on skulduggery

Roaming in here most archly,

He'll rob us, if we let him,

Take care, stay clear of ‘im.'

The landlord aroused everyone

With the grievous tale he spun.

All nine of them searched without

For me making bold about

While I, in ugly bruises

Kept silent in the darkness.

I prayed, not in a loud way,

But in secret like one in dismay

And by the might of intense prayer

In Jesus’s faithful care,

I got back, what a sleepless muddle!

To my lair without further trouble.

I had escaped, thanks to the saints,

And I beg the Lord for forgiveness.


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